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When Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, Sweden's culture minister, cut into a cake last Sunday, she had no idea the act would spark an international incident.
The cake was Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde's latest work, part of a World Art Day celebration at Sweden's Modern Museum. He created a life-sized depiction of the upper body of a black woman. The head of the cake was the real artist's head, and he was painted in stereotypical black face, the kind historically used in minstrel shows. Each time an attendee carved a slice from the cake, he screamed.
The performance and cake were statements against female genital mutilation, Linde told NPR's Tell Me More. "I've been re-appropriating the black face, or the golliwog face, and putting it in different contexts. I usually put it on different symbols, like ancient philosophers or Greek gods."
But photos of Liljeroth, the culture minister, smiling as she cut into the cake have gone viral and set off a firestorm in a country that tends to shy away from conversations on race. The National Afro-Swedish Association is calling the episode a "racist spectacle," and calling on the minister to resign.
The incident has sparked a debate in the press and among Swedes in terms of both the limits of free speech and whether a politician can "get involved in something which can be interpreted as patently offensive to a large number of people," says David Landes, editor of The Local, Sweden's leading English language news website.
The minister did issue an apology on Thursday, writing: "I am sincerely sorry if anyone has misinterpreted my participation." However, she also said that art is intended to provoke and stood by the event's intention to celebrate free expression and the importance of protecting women.
"You're looking at a really potent cocktail of potentially explosive issues" including female genital mutilation, race, the depiction of women, culture and identity, Landes says. "These are the things art is supposed to make us think about, but there are so many ways it can go wrong."
Watch the video below, but please be warned that some might find its content disturbing:
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